From birth to age 10, I grew up on blackberries and the marine layer in the flatlands of Berkeley, Calif. We rooted for baseball’s Bash Brothers and Rickey Henderson, rode BART and flew kites at a bayside park built over a former dump. Then my parents moved their four children to rural south-central Kansas, back to my mother’s Mennonite community. Some of their California friends thought they’d lost their minds. My father was an East Coast Jew; they were both busy labor lawyers. But they wanted us to be near extended family and so, just before I entered fifth grade, we arrived in a place where people measure rainfall in hundredths of an inch.
Nearly 20 years ago, Barack Obama insisted that we are one people. In the Pledge of Allegiance — which I found myself reciting for the first time in my life every morning before class in Kansas — we say we are one nation. But lately it can seem the red and blue are not only two different worlds but also doomed to an ever-warming cultural war.
These days, I travel several times a year between the Bay Area — where I’m raising a family of my own — and Kansas, sometimes spending a month or more on my parents’ farm, surrounded by wheat, soybeans, alfalfa and corn. And I’m here to tell you that our divisions are not so much hardening as blurring — rural and urban America are not as divided as many people think.
The possibility of this country, the promise, is based on a union mutually beneficial even as it contains multitudes of difference. What we might think of as blue-state values (environmentalism, support for L.G.B.T.Q. communities, internationalism, racial and cultural diversity) are also valued by people living in red states. And some of these values (conservation, land stewardship, growing your own food) were originally also red-state values that blue areas of the country tend to forget they didn’t invent.
On my block in Oakland, neighbors have turned their front yards into vegetable plots. A few doors down, chickens hunt and peck. Some of my neighbors long to do what my parents did — “blow up the TV,” as John Prine sang, “go to the country,” “plant a little garden” and find a slower pace nearer the land.
My mother hails from generations of farmers; she left to study law at the University of California, Berkeley, and met my father, who had been educated at Columbia Law School, when they worked as lawyers representing the United Farm Workers union. When I arrived on the Kansas farm that would shape my childhood, I did not miss California as much as I loved the land — the creeks, the prairies, the smell of the air and the earth.
I was also, I discovered, a misfit. I had long hair and wore colorful Berkeley clothes. Our farmhouse was full of books by people like George Eliot, Rosa Luxemburg and Abraham Joshua Heschel, with posters on the wall of Angela Davis and Pete Seeger. We canned our own tomatoes and turned ice cream by hand but also traveled to the East Coast for b’nai mitzvah. I fished the creeks but still followed the Oakland A’s. Had I not had one foot in the door by way of my mother’s family roots, I don’t know if I’d have survived Kansas. It was not an easy place to be a half-Jewish boy with an odd haircut.
While Kansas and other rural areas across the country supply the cities with things like wheat to make bread and energy to fuel all that hustle and bustle, the cities produce ideas and values that increasingly infuse rural communities, much more so than when I was in grade school in the 1990s. If I had to pinpoint the moment I thought something was shifting, it might be when my rural Mennonite college staged a play about Matthew Shepard’s murder. That was in 2002. This summer a little town of a few thousand near my family’s farm held a Pride parade — for the fourth time. I see more and more electric vehicles on those country roads. A short drive from the farm there’s the School for Rural Culture and Creativity, a new gathering place for prairie-based artists that has also helped revive an almost abandoned village. There’s even a small queer community at the little high school I attended. I know from lonely experience that this did not exist when I was coming up.
The fact that people like Kansas’ attorney general, Kris Kobach, are trying so hard to curtail advances like trans rights betrays how much change is afoot. There are 509,000 registered Democrats in Kansas and 546,000 people who registered and refused to affiliate with any party. That’s at least a third of the state’s population. In the past two decades, voters have picked two women in favor of abortion rights for governor. And it’s not as though all these people in Kansas, Texas, Ohio or anywhere else in the heartland can afford, or even want, to pick up and move to California or New York. These so-called red states are their home, and many of them will raise families there. And so their values are part of the state’s future. Kansas was, after all, the first state to reject — resoundingly — an effort to roll back abortion access after Roe was struck down.
It’s certainly true that a white guy like me can pretty seamlessly integrate into these different worlds, while for others the division is palpable and getting worse. It can be hard at times to see just how much change is happening in its seeping, inexorable way. The year before Donald Trump was elected, my parents received a swastika in their mailbox on Christmas Day. Until then, in the two decades since they’d left California, nothing like that had happened. I’ve heard many examples of the growing population of brown and Black people being profiled by local cops. There are plenty of Confederate flags around Kansas towns, and there continue to be at least a couple of dots in the state on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s annual hate-group map.
Still, I argue that Mr. Kobach and his ilk see — and fear — how real the change is.
I know several farmers in the immediate vicinity of my parents’ place who vote Democrat, support abortion rights, support queer and trans rights and are as adept with computerized combines as they are castrating cattle. Some have gone organic. Others are phasing out the plow entirely. Scientists at the Land Institute, co-founded by my friend Wes Jackson, are developing perennial grains that can produce food while leaving the soil undisturbed. This reduces the amount of soil carbon released into the air, in addition to greatly reducing erosion and the need for industrial chemicals.
Wes once told me his definitions of urban and rural: Rural places turn raw resources into goods, and urban places consume those goods. It’s a crude definition, but I like how it lays bare the symbiosis between city and country, revealing them to be two parts of one whole. The common assumption is that the line between red states and blue states is a wall. But maybe relentlessly repeating this binary assumption puts too much emphasis on the differences and not enough on a shared humanity. As Pete Seeger used to sing in the old labor song, “Here’s the city and country together — we shall not be moved.”
The problems this nation faces — revanchist racism, misogyny, antisemitism, homophobia, climate change, economic injustice, the destruction of small-scale farm culture, too many assault rifles — are enormous, and the gap between worldviews out there is mind-boggling. But the truth is not, as Gertrude Stein wrote, only that “the difference is spreading,” but also that difference is spreading. While our enclaves seem more polarized than ever online, in these United States we may actually be more and more intermixed, more and more differently human together, than we’ve been led to believe. Put another way, we may feel more polarized than we actually are.
Jesse Nathan’s first book, “Eggtooth,” a poetry collection, will be published in September.
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